Being someone for whom aloneness feels like living burial, I suppose I could have chosen a more suitable life than one involving so much reading, writing, and filmgoing. True, you do sit among dozens to hundreds of others when you see a movie, but that strikes me as isolation by other means. I suppose I could also have chosen a more suitable city than Los Angeles, whose endemic lonely-crowd cultural and intellectual alienation detractors have reflexively (if not rigorously) asserted for decades and decades.
Yet I’ve taken few other options seriously, geographically or existentially speaking, and the moments of near-true connection that have come along thus far just about convince me to stay the course. Over the year I have now logged in this city, Los Angeles Plays Itself has, in the three times I’ve seen it, reliably catalyzed such moments, and the very act of attending its showings has shed light on, if not my obscure object of desire, then the obscure desire itself.
The documentary, directed by CalArts professor and longtime Angeleno Thom Andersen, mounts something a defense against all the cinematic abuse Los Angeles has taken since the invention of the medium. The movies have remorselessly mangled its distinctive geography; they’ve routinely, and often shabbily, tarted it up to simulate other, more “real” cities; they’ve reduced it to a vast, multi-purpose nowhere, at once bland and garish. Once you start noticing this custom, whether you learn of it through Andersen or elsewhere, you can’t stop noticing it.
One of the many, many film clips Los Angeles Plays Itself marshals in the argument comes from Cobra, a neon-drenched mid-eighties Sylvester Stallone vehicle and staple of my own teenage late-night cable viewing. One of its elaborate car chases jumps, with a single cut, from the cement canals of Venice thirty miles south to Long Beach harbor. Even if you can’t describe that sleight of hand, you can feel it. Perhaps you’d expect even worse from a picture in Cobra’s league, but that brazen manhandling of reality startles me every time — and it seems to raise a rather more complicated reaction in Andersen.
Against this geographically lazy car chase, the documentary summons a geographically fastidious one from H.B. Halicki’s 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds, which speeds in a rigidly “literalist” fashion through greater Los Angeles’ South Bay. The narration flatly proclaims that film “Dziga Vertov’s dream: an anti-humanist cinema of bodies and machines in motion,” a line which never fails to draw a laugh from me. It also drew one, I couldn’t help but notice, from the girl sitting next to me, a globally peripatetic French-Canadian-Korean polyglot cinephile who moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco two months ago and will soon decamp to rural Colorado to — as I understand it — tend to horses for a few weeks.
This screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself happened to come at the right time: two weeks after I met her, and one week before the farm calls. While I’ve come to regard Andersen’s film as an essential first phase in the grand, futile project of understanding Los Angeles, something inside me also insisted that she, in particular, would find it a highly resonant viewing experience. That hunch and others, even though two weeks would seemingly provide little to go on, proved correct, almost frighteningly so. Locked in to the right subject, it seems, the subconscious mind figures things out.
As with people, so with cities. It took very few visits to Los Angeles before I echoed, albeit quietly and only to myself, Brigham Young’s pronouncement upon reaching Salt Lake Valley: “This is the place.” I could lay out countless minor reasons why — specific places, foods, experiences, and notables that feel tailored for me, and I for them — but the irreducible gestalt, despite taking the form of a place sometimes referred to not like hell but as hell, really made the choice for me.
Having now lived here for a year, I’ve built up my stock of descriptors. Los Angeles attracts me with both its statelessness and its aimlessness. The city seems to roll along encumbered by no more pressing claims from the United States of America than from Latin America, or Asia, or even Europe. It periodically undergoes times of great change — we find ourselves in one now — without ever quite displaying awareness of what it means to become. Getting up close, taking one encounter at a time, I’ve often thought of Los Angeles as an ideal match for me. Stepping back, taking in the protean, elusive whole, the very idea turns ridiculous, but I suspect something squares that circle. The subconscious mind figures things out.
Built visually out of only other feature films, Los Angeles Plays Itself includes pieces of Cobra, Gone in 60 Seconds, and 200 others besides. (It always surprises me how much of The Replacement Killers made it in.) This has rendered the documentary effectively unreleasable in any easy-to-find form (though you might find one imperfect solution above). I’ve managed to see it three times in my year here, each instance psychologically aligning with my experience of Los Angeles more closely than the last.
My first viewing came almost immediately, presented by one of the first friends I made in town, a former CalArts film student. As I understand it, people usually face a considerably longer struggle before being all-importantly “invited in” to Los Angeles, whether professionally, socially, or cinematically. My second viewing, one of the picture’s regular appearances at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre, put me — surely an old hand, after six months here — in the role of the introducer. I brought two friends from Santa Barbara and, straight from Vancouver, Chris, the Livejournalist formerly known as Cobalt999. Chris played an unusual part: the visitor from a high-livability-ranked urban paradise (so I’ve read) genuinely interested in getting a handle on the likes of Los Angeles.
This third time, on my 367th day of residence, I realized I no longer call the place “L.A.” Andersen never did. “Maybe we adopted it as a way of immunizing ourselves against the implicit scorn,” he says, “but it still makes me cringe. Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it.” He also never professes love for Los Angeles, and neither do I. The proper chemistry arises from time to time, but when I look intently at the city, it stares back expressing a discomfiting oscillation between alluring encouragement and flat disregard.
The sparks that fly between me and the elements of Los Angeles I choose to engage distract from an underlying sense of inevitable rejection made somehow more dreadful by its obvious benignity. Upon first meeting my latest Los Angeles Plays Itself viewing companion, I described this city as “my cruel mistress.” I meant it as a joke, and “cruel” implies too much intention, but clearly, the subconscious mind figures things out. Los Angeles has gradually become a mistress, built up unnoticed in my lower mental tiers, without a legitimate wife to oppose.
Stranger still, she stands, exuding favorable signals all the while, at just enough of a remove — always centered elsewhere, or about to be — to not literally merit the title. Yet I foresee myself linked to her, however tentatively. I foresee myself never quite knowing when I’m throwing good time, money, and faith after bad. I foresee myself leaving, temporarily but as often and as long as possible, pretending to do so not out of compulsion, not out of necessity, not out of fear, but out of choice.